Water and steam power.
The original, small Keithbank Mill was built in 1830 by a Mr. William Fyfe, directly across the river from Oakbank Mill. In the late 1860s a new and larger mill was erected a few yards further downstream (designed by John Kerr & Co) in order to increase the fall, by the then owners Messrs. Low. This mill was driven by a waterwheel (by J. Kerr, Dundee) and a power steam engine by Carmichael of Dundee. In about 1880 it employed 100 people and yarns were produced for the Forfar trade. From 1888 to 1932 it was owned by the Proctor family.
Sources: Peter Dawson, Meg Luckins
Formerly listed as 'Keithbank Mill, Westfields of Rattray'. The earlier water-powered mill was converted and extended for Matthew Low, spinner, to run off a single cylinder horizontal steam engine. Keithbank is of special interest as a combined steam- and water-powered mill containing the original power plant.
The mill ran continually right up to 1928 when it closed until 1932. At the latter date it was acquired by Mr. Thomas Thomson who re-started it despite the depression of the time and despite the fact that spinning mills all over the country were closing down. Along with Ashgrove Mill, Messrs. Thomas Thomson (Blairgowrie) Ltd succeeded in operating Keithbank successfully in competition with Dundee although all jute fibre was brought to Dundee by boat and extra haulage to Blairgowrie was involved.
Originally, Keithbank spun nothing but flax although some jute had been tried prior to 1928 by Messrs. Proctor. From 1932 – 1945 jute alone was spun, the quality of the thread being exceedingly fine. The production of jute spun by water-power alone at Keithbank made the mill unique in this respect in the jute trade. This fact contributed to the defeat of a Board of Trade proposal in 1942 to close down Keithbank in the Scheme for Industry Concentration. It was stated at the time that at least 400 tons of coal per year were saved by the use of water-power and that Blairgowrie was nearer to the west coast (where jute was brought in during war time) than was Dundee, thus meaning a saving also in transport. Sixty people were employed at Keithbank at that time.
In 1945 the spinning of rayon was tried and records show that this made up 75% of the material spun at Keithbank, the other 25% being jute.
This extract from an address to Blairgowrie Rotary Club given by their president, ex-Provost Thomas Thomson, head of Thomas Thomson (Blairgowrie) Ltd., September, 1947 offers some interesting background to this textile.
“The rise in the importance of rayon throughout the world within the last 17 years has been amazing. Since 1930 the world’s production of wool has remained stationary; that of cotton has decreased by about 17% ; whereas rayon has increased by about 300% and is now nearly equal to that of wool.
At Keithbank the staple fibre, or fibro as it was called by the producer, Courtaulds, is spun. From the spinners’ point of view it is attractive because the fibres are of uniform length and thickness. It is clean, strong and easily dyed to any desired shade. At the present time rayon is produced in various ways but well over 80% of the world’s total production is obtained by what is known as “viscose manufacture”. The source of cellulose used for viscose is wood pulp, the spruce being largely used. The pulp is received in the factory in the form of stiff boards about twenty inches square by one-eighth of an inch thick. These are steeped in caustic soda, shredded into “crumbs”, carbon bi-sulphide is added, and after a lengthy process of ageing, mixing and ripening the spinning stage is reached. This is done by forcing the solution through very small holes, the size of which determines the thickness of the thread produced”.
Keithbank Mill finally closed in 1979. A substantial building, it was perfect for adapting to other uses. From 1990 until 2002 it housed a very popular Heritage Centre. In 2007 the property was converted into spacious apartments. Some original features were retained although the tall stack (chimney) of the power station was reduced in height.
Keithbank (sometimes spelt Keathbank) is named after the Keith Falls where the river Ericht pours down a narrow gorge now known as Cargill’s Leap.
‘That narrow portion of the River Ericht running through a chasm or opening betwixt some flat conglomerate rocks’.
A kind of bar, called a Keith laid across the river at Blairgowrie, by those who are concerned in the salmon fishery there, effectually prevents the salmon from coming up the rivers Ardle & Shee.